Today, August 30th, is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s birthday. Though best known for Frankenstein – her nightmarish vision of a “pale student of the unhallowed arts” written at the age of 19 – she was a writer her whole life and produced travelogues, historical novels and what is widely regarded as the first post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Last Man. Though she was a complicated, intelligent and talented woman with many accomplishments it’s her earliest work that looms over her legacy, and the focus of my illustration today. I’ve always been fascinated by portraits of Shelley, though – there’s a deep sadness in her eyes that seems to come through, and of course her life was one with many tragedies including the deaths of children and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Her creation of Frankenstein is famous enough that I won’t go over it again here – though I’ll note that I love the intro to Bride of Frankenstein and its nod to Shelley and that famous evening. The first film adaptation was probably J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 production for Edison Studios, but it was Universal Pictures that made the monster an icon. Jack Pierce’s makeup and Boris Karloff’s interpretation were movie magic, and though the novel had entered the public consciousness it was really the 1933 film that turned it into a cottage industry spawning films, TV shows, comics and novels – including “sequels” to Shelley’s originals. Indeed, the monster had become such a pop culture presence in my childhood that he was just as often a figure of comedy as he was of horror. (And graced the box of one of my favorite childhood breakfast foods.)
I didn’t read Frankenstein until I was a teen, and at the time it was the subtitle “or, The Modern Prometheus” that caught in my head. I always thought of Prometheus as a good guy in the old myths, bringing the light and warmth of fire to a huddling, frightened humanity. Frankenstein was a reminder that mankind had found other uses for fire besides heat and light. And that’s a direct line down to nuclear power and genetic engineering. Victor wasn’t able to bring himself to take responsibility for his creation when he should have, and lost control as a result. Still a message worth taking.
Anyway, I’m rambling on too much, but I did want to say that one of the things I was thinking about as I was drawing – though I don’t think I capture it – was how similar the sadness is in both Mary’s eyes and those of Karloff’s monster. Those two have seen some things, and maybe they both felt a little abandoned in a harsh world.